The little known true history of the Norman conquest. An expedition into the wilderness to uncover the real reasons the Anglo-Saxon army of King Harold were defeated in October 1066.
King Edward the Confessor died on 5th January 1066 with no heirs. A council of Anglo-Saxon noblemen (the Witan) was convened and chose Harold Godwinson, Edward’s son-in-law, as his successor and he was duly crowned. However there were three other claimants to the throne – his brother Tostig Godwinson; Harald Hardrada the Norwegian King; William Duke of Normandy.
King Harold was anticipating an attack from William of Normandy, so was stationed with his army in the south of England.
However in the late summer of 1066 Hardrada lead a Norwegian army into England. They joined forces with Tostig and prepared to attack York. After defeating a small English army at the Battle of Fulford, they captured York.
Harold and his army headed north, making the journey from London to York (185 miles) in only four days, and catching Hardrada off guard. They surprised the Norwegian army and defeated them at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25th September. Both Hardrada and Tostig died in the fighting.
Harold’s victory celebrations were short lived. Three days later the Norman army of William landed on the beach at Pevensey Bay. Harold turned his troops round and marched back to London and then on to the south coast and into battle again at the Battle of Hastings. 500 miles on foot for the entire army in just 2 weeks!
Not since Pheidippides’ epic trip from Athens to Sparta and back and then to Marathon and back has such an endeavour taken place. Pheidippides’ heroics have been honoured in the equally epic ultramarathon “Spartathlon”, and now finally we have a race to honour King Harold and his Anglo-Saxon warriors. The 1066 100
The race is a collaboration between Richard Weremiuk and Mark Cockbain, and surprisingly, given their reputations, only replicates the final stage of the march. The 100 miles from London to the site of the battle of Hastings – Battle Abbey. No doubt they are still planning the full version: London to York, York to London, London to Battle…
The race start
The race has a 9am start so I was able to get a train into London and out to Barnes rather than pay for an expensive hotel. Registration was a two minute affair – no need for a kit check. The joint RDs wanted to keep it simple – no mandatory kit and only two rules: no pacing, no hiking poles. Chainmail, swords and battleaxes were not required, although a machete would have been useful – more on that subject later. The route was not going to be marked with tape, but there were new 1066 “Harold’s Way” waymarks, and a GPS file of the route had been shared with all competitors. We were advised we would need it. They weren’t wrong.
The start was Barne Elms sports ground, and to help thin out the field before leaving we had to do a lap of the cricket pitch before heading out onto the road. I had positioned myself in the vanguard. After a couple of hundred meters we joined the Thames Path. The route would have us follow this all the way to Crayford, some 30 miles to the East. Mostly the Thames Path is easy to follow, but there are a few sections where it diverts away from the riverside. Fortunately I work in London, and many lunchtime runs have been by the river. From Battersea Park to the Isle of Dogs felt like my home patch. I even ran right past the office after 11 miles.
Checkpoint One was 15 miles into the race at a primary school, and our first chance to re-provision. I had to stop and use the toilets – running in the woods you can go anywhere, but not so easy in central London. It was already warm and it would be another 20 miles before the next CP, so I filled the 1.5l bladder in my pack as well as two 500ml soft flasks for the front pockets. Did the Anglo-Saxon warriors have race vests, or just a pig’s bladder toed over the shoulder? Such questions would haunt me all day.
The bit in the middle
Straight after CP one I had to cross the Thames via the Greenwich Foot Tunnel. Clearly the race was taking a few liberties with historical authenticity at this point, but I suspect this part of Harold’s Way is now the A2, and not much fun to run along.
I ran most of the next section on my own, catching and passing a couple of runners along the way. It was flat and an easy trail down to the Thames Barrier, and then beyond before a rather dull concrete path looping around various industrial units, until finally reaching the Crayford marshes and heading inland along the Darent River. There were a few guys riding motorcross bikes around, and chucking up clouds of dust. Not something Harold’s boys would have been bothered by.
Checkpoint 2 was outside the church in Dartford, and I only stopped briefly to refill my flasks with water. I was running in third place at this stage, but already struggling with my longtime injured left Achilles, and taking longer walk breaks to try and manage the issue.
In Darenth village I had a very pleasant surprise. As I walked up Wood Lane, I saw my children shouting at me. I hadn’t expected to see them so early in the race, but Sarah had driven out to find me, complete with a hamper of fruit and sandwiches. She even had some ice, so I shoved some under my hat to help keep me cool. They offered to meet me at Istead Rise, another 5 miles further on, with an iced coffee. While iced coffee is also not strictly historical, Harold’s army did this journey at the end of September, not early July, and with no Global Warming to bother them i’m sure the weather was perfect.
When I reached Istead, they were waiting with more food and a delicious iced coffee from Costa. The next section was one of the most scenic of the day – through the village of Cobham, then the woods and Ranscombe Nature Reserve. As I jogged through the woods I heard a bellowing grunt from the undergrowth, which spurred me into a much faster run up the hill than I would normally try. A thousand years ago these same beasts roamed the land, and although I couldn’t see it I kept running hard despite the gradient. A picture of the beast is below…
It was only a few more miles to Rochester and Checkpoint 3 at the castle. Rochester Castle was built by the Normans, after Harold’s journey, so I’m sure when he rested here it was very different. Sarah and the children were here again, along with the CP volunteers. I picked up my headtorch, and more food from my drop bag, but only stayed a couple of minutes. I knew from here the route would follow the North Downs Way up to Blue Bell Hill, so was expecting a bit of a hike.
After leaving the NDW I had a couple of minor navigation errors. I had the GPX file of the route loaded to my Garmin, and was following it, but there were a couple of places where I took the wrong turn where the path forked, and either had to back track, or work my way back to the trail around the edge of a field. Finally I crossed over the M20 and turned down to Allington Locks. I’d asked Sarah to meet me here at the Malta Inn. Sure enough she was there, and my mother and sister had also come out to the pub for dinner and to meet me. There was also a group supporting another runner (Michael), who was now about a mile ahead of me in 2nd place, so a lot of cheering when I arrived.
I stopped to change into some fresh clothes for the night, and enjoy a quick snack. Sarah had ordered me a pint, and mum had a couple of pork pies for me to take. After stopping for 5 minutes I said goodnight to the kids as it was getting late. The beer was a DNF! A half pint would have been enough.
Running on the riverbank with a head torch on was attracting all the bugs so I had to go slow and breathe through my nose or risk a mouthful of insects. Someone was setting off fireworks as I ran through Maidstone town centre. They had a box full of them firing off on the footpath, but finished just as I got there, so I only had to deal with the smoke.
Crossing Tovil bridge there was an ad-hoc aid station, offering food and drink, and another surprise – the kids had persuaded Sarah to let them stay up a little later, so they were all there wishing me good luck for the night section – top crewing!
The night section
Leaving Tovil, there was a climb up the road, and my Achilles was throbbing again, so I walked up. I was having a bit of a low moment, when a cheery voice called out from a parked van, offering a cup of tea. I decided to stop and accept this offer. He was crewing for his wife Helen, and I’d seen him a few times on the route. Helen was apparently just behind me, and sure enough by the time I finished my tea she had arrived. We set off together, and it was good to have some company on the next few miles into CP 4 at Park Wood. Chatting helped take my mind off my injury worries and we made fairly good time.
I asked for another tea at the checkpoint, and told Helen I would catch her up. However when I left the CP, I almost immediately got lost. The directions I’d been given at the CP didn’t tally with the GPX file on my watch and it took a few minutes to work out where I was and get back on course. See below for my aimless wandering in the wood…
Now on track I picked up the pace, trying to catch Helen. I wasn’t chasing for a race position, so much as wanting to run with someone for a while. A mile and a half further on I entered an orchard, keeping the hedge on my right hand side. Soon I saw a headtorch moving on a track below me off to the right. Assuming it was Helen I called out, but it wasn’t her, it was Michael who had gone off course and was trying to find the correct route. I climbed down through the hedge to join him and help work out where we were. Both our GPS devices showed us off the route, so we circled around the orchard looking to get back on the path. Eventually the dot on the watch screen intersected the line showing the route and we were on track. We turned right and broke into a run to make up lost time. Chatting away we carried on running for a good 15 minutes until we saw another head torch coming down the lane towards us.
We stopped him to tell him he was going the wrong way. He wasn’t. I couldn’t believe him when we said we were running north towards Maidstone, but after double checking on the Viewranger app on my phone, it became obvious we had rejoined the path in the orchard and then run the wrong way.
Slowly the three of us trudged up the hill. I think Michael and I were both feeling rather despondent. Our new buddy Chris, probably couldn’t believe he had made up two race positions so easily.
We continued on together for a while now. It started raining as we entered Staplehurst, so we stopped to put jackets on, and carried on. However the walk breaks were now getting longer and more frequent. You could say we were walking with short run breaks. All three of us had independently checked out the section from Staplehurst to Battle and knew is was a 6.5 hour run with fresh legs, so would be at least 8 in the dark and with 70+ miles in the legs.
There were no major navigation issues after Staplehurst. We had to stop and double check the route a few times, and were pleasantly surprised that a few hay meadows had been cut and the route was a little easier than when we ran it before. A few of the really nasty bits had even been changed – the route modified by sympathetic Race Directors! We arrived at the Sissinghurst checkpoint (CP 5) together, and only stayed a few minutes before heading out. The sky was slowly get brighter now, despite the persistent rain, and it wasn’t long before we could pack away the head torches. We were making slow progress still and starting to wonder why no one had caught us, when a pair of fresh looking runners came up behind us, and shot passed as we went through a hop garden.
The final stretch
The final checkpoint was due to be at Bodiam Castle, but we were told that because of the rain had been moved to the village hall at Sandhurst. The three of us ran in together at 7am. Only 12 miles to go! Michael told us not to wait for him, as he wanted to take a few minutes and sort himself out. Chris and I were about to leave when Sarah arrived. She had woken up early and heard the rain so driven down with fresh dry kit and a thermos. The racedrone tracker had helped her find me. Chris ran on while I took some food for the final stage and a fresh hat.
I thought I would catch Chris, but he was obviously enjoying a second wind and was out of sight. I ran the next mile or so, with no walk breaks but didn’t see him. As I ran down to Bodiam Castle I could see him in the distance making his way around the field over the river. I carried on towards Seddlescombe, and as I jogged down through a field towards the village, I heard a car passing slowly in the lane behind the hedge. A quick glance was enough to recognise the family car, so at the next stile I climbed over and flagged them down. Sarah and the children were in the car with a takeaway coffee. A Costa never tasted so welcome. It was only a mile to the village, so I decided to walk and enjoy the coffee, and I would see them there to return the empty cup.
I knew the last 3.4 miles from Seddlescombe to the finish would be grim. When I ran the section a month earlier it was very overgrown, and sure enough it still was. I walked most of it, ducking under brambles, trying to dodge nettles and thistles, but still getting scratched to shreds and stung to bits. The mad dash across the A21 was only slightly life threatening, and then more nettles before starting the climb up to Battle itself.
The final mile is a bit of a slog, up the hill to Battle. However I eventually made the climb and broke into a jog down Mount Street, before the final left turn onto the High Street. It was still very quiet in the town although it was after 10am by now. The peace was quickly shattered when my two children spotted me and ran down to greet me then jog the final few meters to the finish line at the doorway to the abbey.
I finished in a time of 25hrs, 18 minutes in 6th place. This was my slowest ever ‘100’ mile race, but with the extra detours I took, it was also my longest ‘100’ mile race at 110 miles.
King Harold died at the end of his ultramarathon. In fact so did Pheidippedes… these long foot races may not be good for your health! History tells us that Harold was shot in the eye with an arrow from a Norman archer. However history is written by the winners, so this established truth needs to be questioned and re-assessed. The account by William of Poitiers is very flattering about the strength and bravery of the Norman army. However this overlooked text from the Anglo-saxon chronicles is worth examining:
Harold was informed of this (the invasion) and he assembled a large armie and came against him at the hoary apple-tree. Much weakened by bramble and thistle, inflamed by nettle and sore of foot the armie rested atop Senlac ridge.
And William came against him by surprise before his army was drawn up in battle array. But the king nevertheless fought hard against him, with the men who were willing to support him, and there were heavy casualties on both sides.Anglo-Saxon Chronicles- British Library
A recently discovered section of the Bayeux Tapestry clearly shows Harold and his army’s struggles to reach the battlefield, before their final demise.
Many thanks to Mark and Richard for putting on this race. While the terrain looks benign, it’s a tough challenge, but an enjoyable one. Thanks also to all the volunteers who make these events possible, and to the runners i met and spent time with on the journey.